Tiger aerial assault: Clemson passing offense v. Auburn secondary

By Hugo Guzman  |   Monday, December 24, 2007  |  Comments( 0 )

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The spread offense is not a new concept: It was created back in the early 1970s. However, it's up for argument as to who created it, whether it's Steve Nuss, Glenn Ellison,or former Portland State coach Darrel "Mouse" Davis. While they are the fathers of the scheme, those who have perfected it include Dennis Erickson, Urban Meyer, Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez, among others.

When you consider the raging success these coaches have enjoyed, it's fair to say there hasn't been a heavier influence on the passing attack in history. Today, you absolutely must have a serious passing game to win any titles of worth. With that, we now turn to this aspect of Clemson and Auburn for this year's Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Clemson's passing game (by Marc Hudgens):

Most Clemson fans today still have nightmares over the Tigers' awful aerial game from 2006. Quite frankly, it was the Achilles' heel of what otherwise could have been an ACC title season. Entering this season, most people felt strongly it was going to happen again, considering the Tigers started out with a first-year quarterback for the second straight campaign. There was much doubt in Tigertown.

However, that doubt was quickly erased as junior Cullen Harper, who rode the bench most of his career at Clemson and was immediately in freshman Willy Korn's shadow when the four-star gunslinger committed, went 14 of 24 for 160 yards, two passing scores and zero interceptions in a 24-18 September win over Florida State and its experienced secondary.

Since then, Harper has almost single-handedly destroyed most pass defenses; his regular-season stats reflect a 67 percent completion rate on 400 attempts, good for almost 2,900 yards, and 27 touchdowns and only six picks.

But with all due respect to Harper, and he indeed deserves a lot, a lot of the credit for Clemson's much-improved passing game goes to the receiving corps. Junior Aaron Kelly is Harper's main go-to target; the 6-foot-5 wideout is the ACC's leader in catches, having grabbed 84 balls for over 1,000 yards and 11 scores. Meanwhile, fellow junior Tyler Grisham doesn't have the monstrous stats Kelly does, but he is as athletic as they come.

Then you have Rendrick Taylor, who has very good hands and is a terrific athlete. He's packed with muscle and strength, and there's talk he'll move to linebacker next year.

Next, there's running back C.J. Spiller, who has exceeded expectations in his dual role as a running back and slot receiver. Although his running game hasn't been great this year (maybe the dreaded sophomore slump), Spiller has been exceptional in the passing game in the times he's used.

Finally, Clemson has two solid tight ends in sophomore Michael Palmer and freshman Brian Linthicum. Both have been very effective when used this season; between the two they have caught 23 passes for almost 100 yards and scored four touchdowns. They're two more weapons in Harper's arsenal.

Since Clemson revamped its offensive line earlier this season, there have been far fewer sacks. If the line can maintain and play well, Harper should have good time to scan the field and find open targets. But the absence of right tackle Christian Capote will definitely impact the line's effectiveness.

How Clemson's passing game can defeat Auburn's secondary:

Auburn is ranked sixth nationally in pass defense, allowing 169 yards a game, and has 14 picks against 11 aerial TDs allowed this season. Therefore, it'll be very interesting to see how Harper fares against a very solid secondary.

Senior cornerback Pat Lee is the most experienced player among Auburn's defensive backs, and fellow cornerback Jerraud Powers and safety Aairon Savage are sophomores; further, strong safety Zac Etheridge is only a freshman. However, Etheridge has broken up five passes, hurried the QB twice and forced two fumbles. Furthermore, Lee has eight passes defensed and four picks. Thus, don't let the youth of this secondary mislead you.

As always, it comes down to how well Clemson's O-line blocks. If Harper has time and isn't flushed out of the pocket, he's dangerous. Then again, Harper is also dangerous on the run. He manhandled South Carolina's No. 1-ranked SEC pass defense earlier this year, so Harper could do the same against Auburn's second-rated group.

Auburn pass defense (By Robert Rousseau):

Although Auburn's pass defense rated second in the SEC this season, the unit was probably the best in the conference. After all, the Tigers' offense let them down a lot, and if it hadn't, imagine how well a rested secondary would have fared.

Beyond Lee, the defensive backfield's leader, cornerback Jonathan Wilhite has a lot of experience and is pretty solid. Jerraud Powers, who made the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2006, is solid in all aspects of the game. In terms of safeties, Savage hits like, well, a savage, and Eric Brock has been playing very well; finally, Etheridge has been impressive.

Without question, this is a very solid group of hard-hitting, playmaking defensive backs.

How Auburn's secondary can defeat Clemson's passing offense:

This matchup will be huge in terms of deciding the outcome of this game. Harper is a wonderful signal-caller, and Kelly is as solid a receiver as Auburn has come up against this season.

If Auburn's secondary plays like it did against Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow earlier this season, it will win the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Simply put, the Tigers need to punish Clemson's wideouts when they catch the ball. Guys like Savage, Brock, Powers and Etheridge are fully capable of doing that. Further, Lee will need to have a good game against Kelly, which is possible but challenging.

Lastly, Auburn's pass rush will need to show up.

Can that happen? Yes. Will it? Well, let's put it this way: This defense has shown up much more often than not this season.
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About Hugo Guzman

Trying to bring an objective approach to NFL analysis.
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